Swiss Christmas Traditions and Customs
The arrival of Santa
If you find yourself travelling in Switzerland at Christmas time you may wonder where Santa is. Did he skip the Alps this year? Of course not. Santa comes to Switzerland like clockwork. Every year. It’s just that he arrives on December 6th, for “Samichlaus Abend”—Santa Night. “Samichlaus,” as he is known in Switzerland, wears a hooded red cape and long robe so he looks like an elderly version of Little Red Riding Hood. His arrival marks the beginning of the Christmas season. And it’s easy for him to make his entrance into town. Samichlaus comes from a nearby forest rather than the North Pole. Children quickly gather as he arrives alongside a donkey. No flying reindeer for this Santa. A benevolent gift-giver, he brings a bag of treats for the children.
Santa’s Sidekick Schmutzli
But Samichlaus doesn’t come alone. When he strides into town right before December 6, he brings a mysterious sidekick, “Schmutzli” (“little dirty one”), whose face is hidden beneath a dark and heavy hooded cape. He is in charge of “punishing” disobedient children by swatting them with a broom made of twigs. But everyone recognizes it’s all in fun. Schmutzli remains silent and mysterious as he travels with Samichlaus. They often journey with a donkey or handcart to carry their treats. Samichlaus interviews the children on their behavior in the past year and tries to get a commitment for improvement for the year ahead. Then the traditional treats of lebkuchen, chocolates, peanuts and mandarins are delivered by the iconic pair. And one more tasty treat is included—a little bread man or grittibänz—an absolutely essential part of the tradition.
The Christmas Season Begins
Some villages have dramatic processionals special events to acknowledge St Nicholas Day. In almost all markets across Switzerland, Samichlaus and Schmutzli will visit to distribute treats and keep the tradition alive. Bright colors, loud noises, clanging cowbells, glowing candles, and bellowing trumpets create a festive atmosphere as well as scare away evil spirits that lurk during the dark days of winter. The most elaborate and best known of these processions is the Klausjagen held on December 5 in the town of Küssnacht on the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Luzern).
Heiliger Abend – Christmas Eve
December 24 is “Heiliger Abend,” Christmas Eve or Holy Night, and is celebrated according to the traditions of each village and valley. Most are closely connected to the religious beliefs of the community. In the 16th century, as part of the Reformation, many Swiss villages chose to align themselves with either Catholic or Reform beliefs which affects the Christmas traditions they practice today.
The Christmas tree, which may have been freshly cut by hand, is often hidden away until after dinner and then is revealed after a festive meal on Christmas Eve. Gasps of delight accompany the moment the children see the tree adorned with apples, bells, snowflakes, and sugar cookies in festive shapes. Many families still maintain the tradition of adorning their Christmas tree with lit candles which makes the moment all the more memorable. The story of the Nativity is retold and the family sings the favorite alpine Christmas carol, “Stille Nacht,” which originated in neighboring Austria. Then there is the hunting for hidden presents, most being simple and highly practical. The special night is usually capped by attendance at Midnight Mass where there is plenty of bell ringing and carol singing.
A belief widely held in some regions of Switzerland is that on the First Christmas animals were given the power to speak. A tradition then developed that the miracle is repeated each year at midnight on Christmas Eve in gratitude for the service given by the animals surrounding the Christchild. Farm animals are given an extra portion of hay or grain on Heiliger Abend so no one will accidentally overhear the animals speaking and thus invite a year of bad luck.
Weihnachten—Christmas Day in Switzerland
With mountain snowfall in abundance, Christmas Day begins the winter sports season. Many head for ski resorts and or mountain chalets to try their hand at tobogganing, skiing, ice skating, Nordic skiing and bobsledding. Many chilly evenings conclude with delicious fondue.
Especially in the small alpine villages, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the time to visit neighbors and family. And all the delicious holiday pastries and cookies are on hand to continue the celebration.
Try your hand at baking some Baumnuss Guetzli, which are a type of walnut cookie. While the cookies are in the oven you can sign up for a Swiss Christmas Market Tour.
Top 10 Christmas Towns and Villages in Switzerland
There are some essential elements that make for a perfect Christmas atmosphere. Among them, snow, sleigh bells and steaming cups of hot chocolate rate high on the list and they’re some of the reasons why Switzerland ranks as one of the top Christmas destinations in Europe.
Switzerland with its snow-capped Alps, clear blue glacial lakes and innumerable towns and villages, which wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a seasonal greetings card, is a country which epitomizes the festive season. Spend a Christmas vacation in Switzerland, and you’ll discover the charm of the prettiest Christmas towns imaginable, their festive markets and traditional seasonal events plus have the chance to enjoy some of the country’s incredible winter sports activities.
Choose any one of these top ten towns and villages in Switzerland as your destination, and you’ll have a Christmas holiday in Switzerland you’ll never forget.
Gruyères is a stunningly Gothic medieval town in the central alpine region of Switzerland. The town is well known worldwide for its namesake cheese, excellent chocolate and 13th-century fairytale castle. Christmas in Gruyères is a special time when the cobbled streets are strung with festive lighting and taken over by the town’s festive market. The Gruyères Christmas Market is held over two weekends leading up to Christmas and is where local artisans showcase their wares amid choirs of carol singers and braziers of roasting chestnuts. It’s a fabulous festive atmosphere which is second to none.
It would be impossible to visit Gruyères without trying both the local cheese and some of the fantastic Swiss chocolate produced in the town. La Maison de Gruyere is a cheese factory with interactive exhibitions where you can find out how the famous cheese is created. From its origins as milk produced by dairy herds farmed in alpine meadows through the processes it passes until it reaches maturity and becomes flavorsome Gruyere.
The Maison Cailler is a chocolate factory where you can watch the expert chocolatiers plying their trade before indulging your taste buds in some of the delectable treats. Want to try making your own? You can at the Chocolaterie de Gruyères.
Exploring the Château de Gruyères is also a must. The eight-hundred-year-old, turreted castle is one of the best places to visit in Switzerland. Don’t miss it.
Lugano is one of the top Christmas destinations in Switzerland for several very good reason. The city nestles against the shores of Lake Lugano in a superb picturesque setting, has a backdrop of dramatic mountain ranges and is a blend of Swiss and Italian which makes it culturally unique.
Incredibly beautiful at any time of the year, Lugano just gets better when it throws on its festive cloak. Christmas in Lugano isn’t a brief two or three-day event. The city’s festivities start at the end of November and continue through until the 6th of January. In a style more in keeping with Mediterranean traditions most of the public celebrations, apart from the Christmas Market which takes over the city center streets, take place in the city’s main plazas, the Piazza Manzoni and the Piazza della Reforma.
The Piazza Manzoni is converted into a Christmas village complete with typical Swiss alpine huts, an enormous Father Christmas and a daily schedule of Christmas themed entertainment. The Piazza della Reforma hosts the Food Lover’s Chalet which is the perfect place to escape from the chill in the air and enjoy a hot chocolate or a glass of spiced mulled wine.
Don’t miss seeing the Underwater Nativity Scene in Lake Lugano. Invisible by day, the scene comes to life when illuminated at night and is pure Christmas magic.
Locarno is as renowned for its historic old town and fifteenth-century sanctuary as it is for being one of the best places to experience a Christmas in Switzerland. What makes Locarno stand out from other Swiss towns as a Christmas destination?
During the seasonal festivities, the main plaza, the Piazza Grande, is converted into an ice rink and for the entire Christmas period the city becomes Locarno on Ice. The festive atmosphere is augmented even more by the addition of igloo-shaped bars, a stage for live performances and numerous street food stalls. There is also a large Christmas Market in Locarno’s old town full of handicraft stalls, and food stands offering hot soup, melted cheese specialties, and seasonal sweet treats.
To view Locarno in all its wintery glory, make the pilgrimage up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso to enjoy the spectacular views of the lake and alpine mountain landscape from there.
7. St Moritz
World famous St Moritz is Switzerland’s glamour resort both for summer vacations and winter sports activities. The luxurious spa town has a long history of pioneering innovative ideas, but at Christmas, it’s tradition which rules the day.
St Moritz has one of the best festive atmospheres of anywhere in Switzerland and after hosting the Winter Olympics twice, knows how to organize big events. In St Moritz, the celebrations start with a Christmas Market where there’s a visit from Santa Claus, music concerts and candle making workshops. The Glatschin Ice Rink opens along with its surrounding gastro-village and Christmas-themed fair as well as several other rinks throughout the city like Ludain’s. Some of the classier five-star hotels such as the landmark Badrutt’s Palace and the Kulm Hotel have their own rink installations so there’s no shortage of ice on which to show off your skating skills.
Apart from celebrating the festive season in St Moritz, one of the best things to do while there is to take a ride on the historic Bernina Express across the Alps to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tirano.
To view the winter wonderland surrounding St Moritz without missing a single snowflake, book a seat in a panoramic wagon on the Glacier Express. The train runs between St Moritz and the Oberalp Pass through the Rhine Gorge and over some breathtaking viaducts.
For an old-fashioned Christmas, with no traffic noise or pollution, vehicle-free Zermatt is the ideal town for a festive vacation in Switzerland. There’s no need to worry about gaining any poundage from overindulging in seasonal fayre when staying in Zermatt either, as the most popular activities there are hiking, climbing, and skiing.
Zermatt sits beneath the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn and has the visual appeal of traditional alpine lodges surrounded by snow-capped peaks and pine trees. Though the town does have a beautiful array of festive lighting, it’s a vision which doesn’t need decorative lighting to make it look Christmassy. Explore Zermatt’s streets on a two-hour walking tour, and it’ll reveal quite a few interesting secrets.
Climbing the Matterhorn won’t be on most folks Christmas wish list, but don’t miss taking the cable car up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. At almost two-thousand-eight-hundred feet above sea level, it’s the highest point in Europe reachable by cable car and from the staggering altitude of the viewpoint it’s possible to see, weather permitting, thirty-eight of the Alpine peaks.
For a more sedate alternative, which is just as breathtaking, but at a much lower altitude, ride the Gornergrat Cog Railway. The train departs from Zermatt station and takes just over half an hour to climb the, almost vertical, five thousand feet to the observation point and hotel on the summit of the Gornergrat. From the top, the panoramic views of the Alps and the Matterhorn are incredible.
Einsiedeln is a Swiss town with a tenth-century abbey dedicated to the Virgin Mary which draws year-round pilgrims and takes on extra significance during the Christmas period.
Einsiedeln Abbey is an imposing building which dominates the town center and is fronted by a spacious plaza where the town’s Christmas Market, one of the biggest in Switzerland, is held. While the religious aspect of Christmas is important in Einsiedeln, there’s much more to do than visit monasteries and view religious effigies. The town has a fantastic winter sports program including skiing and tobogganing in around Einsiedeln itself and in the resort area of Hoch Ybrig just a short drive away.
It would be impossible to be in Einsiedeln without taking a peep at the Diorama Bethlehem. The oversized nativity scene has more than four-hundred and fifty characters which have all been individually crafted and is an intricate work of Christmas art. As well as the nativity scene, a very Christmassy place to visit in Einsiedeln is the Goldapfel Gingerbread Bakery and Museum. Snack on some traditional Christmas gingerbread of the region while exploring the antique baking equipment on exhibition.
4. Stein am Rhein
Stein am Rhein with its medieval architecture is probably one of the prettiest Christmas towns in Switzerland. Add to that the town’s custom of decorating the streets where the Christmas Market, or Maerlistadt, is held in a different fairytale theme every year and Christmas becomes a magic fantasy for all generations. Follow the trail or Marliweg, through the town to discover various hidden grottos themed on the story of the year.
The Stein am Rhein Christmas magic doesn’t stop there. For three days, inside the walls of the town’s former Benedictine monastery, St Georgen Abbey, a medieval market comes to life with costumed characters performing trades of the era. Hire a costume, dress up and join in with the fun as knights of old do battle for the honor of a damsel or the blacksmith hammers on his anvil. It’s a real and atmospheric Christmas adventure complete with medieval-style food and drink.
3. St Gallen
St Gallen is one of the top Christmas destinations in Switzerland, not just because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but because its residents really know how to pull out all the stops when it comes to decorations.
St Gallen simply sparkles with light from 700 stars strung above the streets during the festive season. They’re an impressive sight, and alongside probably the tallest Christmas tree in Switzerland which is erected annually in front of the town’s cathedral, make for an absolutely amazing Christmassy atmosphere.
St Gallen doesn’t stint on Christmas Markets and holds a total of three. One on Bohl, another at Waaghous and the third in the Marktplatz, but one of the town’s most popular events includes Santa Claus and his helpers. It’s a special moment for young and old when Santa and his elves ride through the town in a procession called the Chlausritt and something which makes Christmas in St Gallen just that little bit more unique.
While in St Gallen don’t miss the opportunity to visit the cathedral, or Abbey of St Gall, which houses Switzerland’s oldest library or joining a walking tour of St Gallen Old Town and Abbey district.
For an all-out-no-holds-barred traditional Christmas in Switzerland, then Lucerne is the place to be. Lucerne is a city which knows how to go to town on Christmas celebrations and doesn’t miss out on one single essential element.
Lucerne begins its festivities with the onset of Advent when the Christmas lights are switched on and the lakeside Live On Ice rink is opened. From that moment on, the streets are crammed with market stalls from the city’s seven different markets where artisans offer handcrafted gifts made in preparation for the season.
To explore it all, take part in a two-hour walking tour of Lucerne and find out from a professional guide where all the best celebrations are held and about some of the city’s lesser-known Christmas traditions. It’ll really get you in the Christmas spirit.
There is so much more to Lucerne than Christmas celebrations including skiing under the stars and snowshoeing. Lucerne is a complete winter wonderland experience.
It may be difficult to slot in extra visits during the busy Christmas schedule in Lucerne, but don’t miss out on heading into the mountains of Pilatus, Rigi or Stanserhorn. Get there by cogwheel or funicular railway or cable car to add an adventurous element to the festivities. Another must-see in Lucerne is the stunning Chapel Bridge, the oldest timber bridge in Europe and the Water Tower. They’re incredible and Lucerne’s most photographed landmark.
Montreux tops this list of best Christmas towns in the world because it has an incomparable festive atmosphere plus all the features which make it, not just one of the prettiest Christmas towns, but multiple events which make it the top destination for a Christmas vacation in Switzerland.
The Swiss city of Montreux hosts the country’s biggest Christmas Market in an incredible lakeside setting which takes the Christmas ambiance to maximum level. Think over one-hundred and sixty chalet-style stalls on a waterside promenade emitting aromas of mulled wine and fondue cheese among displays of artisanally produced goods. Combine that with a turreted castle with live reenactments of historical stories accompanied by flamethrowers and performances of medieval music. Chillon Castle is pure Medieval Magic and one of the best places to visit in Switzerland.
One more thing which really makes Montreux stand out as the best Christmas town in Switzerland is the novelty train ride which transports children and their families to the house of Santa Claus constructed on the Rochers-de-Naye mountain. Another great train to catch is the Golden Pass which runs from Montreux to Zweisimmen taking its passengers from the shores of Lake Geneva into the stunning Alpine landscape.
One man who would have readily agreed Montreux has a special kind of magic was Queen vocalist, Freddie Mercury. The singer made his home in the city until his untimely death in 1991 and his time in the city is honored with a statue cast in his famous pose on the Montreux waterfront of Lake Geneva. Don’t miss the photo opportunity of snapping a shot next to the memorial of one of rock’s greatest stars.
- 1 Swiss Christmas Traditions and Customs
- 2 Top 10 Christmas Towns and Villages in Switzerland
- 3 10. Gruyères
- 4 9. Lugano
- 5 8. Locarno
- 6 7. St Moritz
- 7 6. Zermatt
- 8 5. Einsiedeln
- 9 4. Stein am Rhein
- 10 3. St Gallen
- 11 1. Montreux